Authors: Fredrik Logevall
Tags: #History, #Military, #Vietnam War, #Political Science, #General, #Asia, #Southeast Asia
Copyright © 2012 by Fredrik Logevall
All rights reserved.
Published in the United States by Random House, an imprint of The Random House Publishing Group, a division of Random House, Inc., New York.
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Illustration credits are located on
LIBRARY OF CONGRESS CATALOGING-IN-PUBLICATION DATA
Embers of war: the fall of an empire and the making of America’s Vietnam / Fredrik Logevall.
Includes bibliographical references.
1. Indochinese War, 1946–1954. 2. Indochinese War, 1946–1954—Diplomatic history. 3. France—Colonies— Asia. 4. Vietnam—Colonization. 5. Vietnam—Politics and government—1945–1975. 6. United States—Foreign relations—France. 7. France—Foreign relations—United States. 8. United States—Foreign relations—Vietnam. 9. Vietnam—Foreign relations—United States. 10. Vietnam War, 1961–1975—Causes. I. Title.
Maps by Mapping Specialists, Ltd.
Title page photos: Fox Photos/Getty Images (left) and
Jacket design: Base Art Co.
Jacket photograph: Guy Defives/Ecpad, France
T IS SAIGON, IN SOUTHERN
VIETNAM, IN THE HEART OF COLONIAL
French Indochina, on a brilliantly sunny autumn day in October 1951. A young congressman from Massachusetts, John Fitzgerald Kennedy, age thirty-four, arrives by plane at the city’s Tan Son Nhut airport, accompanied by his younger siblings Robert and Patricia. Pale and thin, and suffering from a secret illness—Addison’s disease—that will almost kill him later in the trip, he is on a seven-week, twenty-five-thousand-mile tour of Asia and the Middle East designed to burnish his foreign-policy credentials in advance of a Senate run the following year.
Besides Indochina, other stops include Israel, Iran, Pakistan, India, Singapore, Thailand, Malaya, Korea, and Japan.
Kennedy views this stop on the journey with special anticipation. Indochina, he knows, is in the midst of a violent struggle, pitting colonial France and her Indochinese allies, supported by the United States, against the Ho Chi Minh–led Viet Minh, who have the backing of China and the Soviet Union. For almost five years, the fighting has raged, with no end in sight. Originally it had been largely a Franco-Vietnamese affair, resulting from Paris leaders’ attempt to rebuild the colonial state and international order that had existed before World War II, and Vietnamese nationalists’ determination to redefine that state in a new postcolonial order. Now the crisis is moving steadily toward the epicenter of Asian Cold War politics, and the congressman understands it could loom ever larger in U.S. foreign policy and by extension in his own political career.
Hardly have the Kennedys landed and disembarked when there is a sudden outburst of gunfire nearby. “What was that?” asks JFK. “Small-arms fire,” comes the reply. “Another attack by the Viet Minh.” The three siblings soon realize that the bustling facade that Saigon (the “Paris of the Orient,” in the hoary cliché of travel writers) always presents to the visitor is a thin disguise for tension and insecurity. The cafés are packed, the bakeries loaded with French baguettes, and the shopkeepers along the fashionable rue Catinat do brisk business. But the restaurants have antigrenade netting over their terraces, and palpable nervousness hangs in the air. There’s a war on, and though the main action is in Tonkin to the north, Saigon lies in a war-dominated countryside. The Viet Minh have base areas less than twenty-five miles away, and they conduct frequent—and often brazen—attacks on villages right next to the city.
The Kennedys are told they cannot venture outside Saigon by car. Though the French rule the roads during daylight hours, at twilight control shifts to the insurgents, and there’s always the danger of getting stuck in the countryside as the sun sets. So the siblings stay put, conscious of the fact that even in the heart of town, there are occasional grenade attacks, kidnappings, and assassinations. They spend the first evening on the fourth-floor rooftop bar of the waterfront Majestic Hotel, glimpsing gun flashes as French artillery fires across the Saigon River, hoping to hit Viet Minh mortar sites. (The novelist Graham Greene, who will immortalize the war with his classic work
The Quiet American
, and who will enter our narrative in due course, is also a guest at the hotel.) “Cannot go outside city because of guerrillas,” the twenty-six-year-old Robert writes in his diary. “Could hear shooting as evening wore on.”
The next afternoon Jack ventures off alone, making for the small flat on the nearby Boulevard Charner occupied by Seymour Topping, the Associated Press bureau chief. “I’ll only be a few minutes,” Kennedy says at the door. He stays more than two hours, peppering the journalist with questions about every aspect of the war. The answers are sobering. The French are losing and likely can’t recover, Topping tells him, for the simple reason that Ho Chi Minh has captured the leadership of the Vietnamese nationalist movement and has a seemingly inexhaustible supply of recruits for his army. He also controls the mountain passes to China, whose leader, Mao Zedong, is supplying the Viet Minh with weapons and training. Kennedy asks what the Vietnamese think of the United States. Not much, Topping replies. At the end of the Pacific War in 1945, Americans had stood supreme, immensely popular throughout Southeast Asia for their vanquishing of Japan and for the steadfast anticolonialism of the just-deceased Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Their esteem grew when they followed through on a pledge to grant independence to the Philippines. But that was then. Now the United States is resented and even hated by many Vietnamese for her vigorous backing of the French colonial war effort.
Topping’s grim analysis impresses Kennedy, and he is further convinced after a conversation with Edmund Gullion, the young counselor at the American legation, who speaks in similar terms. Kennedy poses tough questions during briefings with the U.S. minister, Donald Heath, and the French high commissioner and military commander, General Jean de Lattre de Tassigny. Why, he asks Heath, should the mass of the Vietnamese people be expected to join the struggle to keep their country a part of the French empire? What would be their motivation? The questions irritate Heath, a Francophile of the first order, and de Lattre is no happier after his session with the lawmaker. The Frenchman, a blazingly charismatic figure who earlier in the year demonstrated his strategic and tactical sagacity in turning back three major Viet Minh offensives, has just returned from a triumphant visit to the United States, where journalists lauded him as the “French MacArthur” and senior officials proclaimed the vital importance of his mission to the broader Cold War. He vows to take the fight to the enemy now that the rainy season is drawing to a close, and he assures Kennedy that France will see the struggle through to the end. The American is skeptical, having heard differently from both Topping and Gullion. De Lattre, sensing his guest’s doubt, sends a formal letter of complaint to Heath but nevertheless arranges for the Kennedy brothers to visit Hanoi in the north and tour the fortifications guarding the Red River Delta approaches to the city.